Communities

New Detroit Program Trades Houses for Literary Excellence

by Sarah Stankorb

September 29, 2014

There are cities that inspire great works of literature: Paris, Dublin, St. Petersburg. Their beauty, rawness, and crushing surrealism bleed into certain narratives and each city becomes more than a setting—it becomes the beating heart of some of our greatest literature. We know these cities, many of us, because we first entered into them through a book.

Now picture Detroit. Those who have never been to Detroit will have had their perceptions shaped by headlines—the crippling poverty, the water shut-offs, the Silverdome sold for less than the cost of a house, the population plummeting from 1.86 million to 700,000. If you’re unfamiliar with the city, it’s easy to assume Detroit is a place of desperation.

“A lot of times, journalists that write for national publications come into Detroit for three days, write an article and leave, and it sometimes feels like journalism about the city is written by outsiders, instead of the people who live here,” says Sarah F. Cox, co-founder of Write A House, a vocational training program that is renovating vacant homes and giving them to writers.

Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard

Last week, Write A House gave away its first house (purchased in foreclosure for $1,000 and renovated with funds from an Indiegogo campaign). The recipient, Casey Rocheteau, is a Brooklyn-based poet.

And now Rocheteau is moving to Detroit. I asked if she was planning to be part of rebuilding the city—something she associates more closely with skilled labor, ingenuity, and elbow grease—not necessarily the traits of writers. Rocheteau answered via email from a writing residency in Italy, “I think that having a strong literary community generates a kind of multi-voiced narrative about a place that can be very important to cultural uplift.”

“It’s not like Detroit is Dresden in 1946,” Rocheteau points out, “it’s also not like Detroit is Detroit in 1946, either.” The current national (and international) narrative about Detroit is one of disaster, like New Orleans’ but not propelled by nature, and thus more insidious in some ways. The important work of Detroit writers, in Rocheteau’s view, will be “to counteract [these] prevailing media narratives about boogeymen and haunted houses that come from people who are not from Detroit.”

Write A House isn’t out to solve all the city’s problems. They’ve bought and rehabbed vacant houses in the No Ham neighborhood and hope to give away up to three more next year. But in a very real way, they are creating homes for writers in a city that Cox describes as a “weird, inspiring place.”

Brooklyn, teeming with artists and writers, is in turn losing a rising poet. Rocheteau expects to miss the scale and diversity of Brooklyn’s arts community. But she also notes “there’s a shark/hustler mentality most people (including artists) have in New York that never bothered me, but that I’ll be glad to get away from, just because I think that instills a culture of competition over collaboration.”

Let’s reconsider her new home, then. It was purchased by writers. It was rehabbed by Young Detroit Builders, who got vocational training while doing the work. After Write A House named Rocheteau as the winner of its first residency in Detroit, there was a party celebrating the poet at the public pool.

As part of the selection committee that tapped Rocheateau, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins found the former Brooklynite’s poetry “witty but deeply serious” and noted her straightforward way of addressing “some of the more frightening aspects of racism.” When I asked Rocheteau to give me a few words that she associates with Detroit, she offered a phrase that could be Detroit’s motto: “working class gold mine.”

Cox notes that Detroit is a place that is “starting to appeal to a lot more creative types.” There are plenty of poets, two newspapers, and for those who want to work independently or freelance, the city offers a cheaper cost of living than what might be found elsewhere. But there’s also the fact that, as Cox puts it, “It's a city that's struggling to deal with issues you don't find in other cities, but it's also interesting to be in a place where you're able to tackle such important problems.” Living in Detroit right now, she adds, means learning how a city works and easily connecting with the people who are making change happen. It seems that while writers might change outsiders’ perception of the city, Detroit, in turn, will shape those writers’ view of what a creative community can be.

And Rocheteau is looking for community. “Some poets are somber and solitary, but I think it’s absolutely crucial to my growth and happiness to have well-watered, arable soil to plant seeds in,” she says. Now, in Detroit, she’ll have that patch of earth in which to grow.

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New Detroit Program Trades Houses for Literary Excellence